By Capt. Nadine Wiley De MouraApril 25, 2019
AUSTIN, Texas -- Sgt. 1st Class Robert Rodriguez and his platoon patrol the sandy streets of Djibouti, the hot East African sun scorches their path with temperatures upwards of 115 degrees. Passing through impoverished villages, Rodriguez began to notice a devastating trend---most of the children are barefooted.
It was during his visit to an orphanage that, Rodriquez immediately thought of his own two daughters and made it his personal mission to do something about the shoeless orphans.
"While on patrol, every few weeks we passed a local orphanage where children gather for their meals," Rodriguez said. "Children aged 5-8 sleep along the walls outside and wake up to shower in the orphanage. They eat cups of peanut butter for protein with crackers. Since there is no refrigeration, that is the most protein they are able to get. That's their lunch---crackers. So I thought you know what? This would be a great mission for my church back home."
While on emergency leave due to his father's passing, Rodriguez pushed past his grief to talk to students and coordinate a sandal drive with the school that his daughters attend, Blessed Sacrament Elementary School in Laredo, Texas. Their Catholic school is part of the parish that Rodriguez and his family belong to.
"I am very active in my daughter's school and I wanted to get my daughters involved and proactive in something in Africa as well," Rodriguez, a platoon sergeant for the 1st Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, 72nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 36th Infantry Division of the Texas Army National Guard, said. "I talked to the principal, who said she would talk to Father Wojciech, the priest in charge of his church in Laredo. The school sent out flyers thru the National Junior Honor Society asking parents to donate one pair of sandals."
On Veteran's day, Rodriguez who is completing his fourth deployment, visited his daughter's school to talk about his service in the military and the children in Djibouti.
"I described how the weather was there, how hot it was and asked them to imagine standing outside, barefooted in Laredo," Rodriguez said. "My daughters and their classmates are at that age where they are learning to help others and how to ask for help as well. I want them to learn a sense of compassion."
From September to December, his daughter's school collected six boxes filled with roughly 500 sandals of varying sizes. After the sandals were collected, the students raised money to send the two by three-foot shipping boxes to Djibouti for Rodriguez and his unit to deliver to the children.
"This is the first time that we have done something so big that reaches out of the country," Cynthia Sanchez, math and science teacher at Blessed Sacrament School. "It's a trickle-down effect, from parents, and at school they are learning how to help others so that they can teach their own kids."
Normally, the school participated in blanket, canned food and sweater drives, and periodically will make trips to feed the homeless.
"They feel good and warm inside about helping others with no incentives but because they want to give it," said Sanchez. "We weren't expecting that amount. A lot of parents and kids wanted to do their part and National Junior honor Society members went outside of the school into their communities to get donations."
Anxiously waiting for the packages to arrive, Rodriguez received the sandals in February.
In order to distribute the sandals in the community, Rodriguez coordinated with the local orphanage and the village elder for approval.
After he received approval, Rodriguez and his platoon set out to deliver the sandals to the children of the community.
"When we handed out the sandals the children were so surprised," Rodriguez said. "Their happiness turned into overwhelming joy, to trying to be next, I made sure they all were good. It got chaotic at times but these children had nothing but what they were wearing and most were barefooted."
Rodriguez, who kept close contact with his daughter's school immediately alerted the school, via e-mail, that he had handed out the sandals to the children.
In response, Anacecy Chavez, a Blessed Sacrament School teacher wrote:
"When I read this my heart jumped. You are a super hero for me and many others for serving our country and helping those around you."
The Director of the orphanage, Caritas Djibouti, also thanked Rodriguez and his daughter's school for their donation.
"We had the good surprise a few days ago to receive, through Mr. Rodriguez, a nice and generous donation of shoes for the street children here at Caritas," said Francesco Martialis, director of Caritas Djibouti. "It was such a generous support which will be usefully used for sure! And also many thanks for the Church support that we feel, from here Djibouti, an isolated place, through your donation. It is precious to us."
Rodriguez, who has been a Soldier on the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force for 18 years, is no stranger to getting involved into the community. Task force members routinely support local law enforcement agencies and community-based organizations in an effort to detect, interdict and deter illicit drug activity.
In addition to being an involved member of his church, Rodriguez said that his experience as a task force member enhanced his ability to build relationships on an international level, communicate and coordinate with partners in order to make the drive a success.
Although Rodriguez's tour is coming to a close, he has continued to solidify the connections of his church at home with the local Djibouti church---which coincidentally are both named Blessed Sacrament.
Rodriguez spoke to the Bishop of the Djibouti Catholic Church about maintaining contact in the case that they may be able to provide more donations for the children.
"It is great to hear that our young youth are striving to be humanitarians as that is something this world is missing more of," Rodriguez said. "It gives me great pride to know that the sacrifices we make as Soldiers to protect our country is giving our youth the opportunity to grow into caring, responsible and giving citizens of our communities."